Feb 9, 2015

Folly of good vs. bad religions: Column

Stephen Prothero
USA Today
February 9, 2015

Obama's comments about Christianity and Islam expose liberal-conservative divide.

President Obama spoke at Thursday's National Prayer Breakfast in the nation's capital, and another culture war broke out.

Obama denounced the so-called Islamic State as a "brutal, vicious death cult" and cataloged instances of "faith being twisted and distorted" in Syria, Nigeria and India. He then observed that no one has a monopoly on violence. "Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ," he said. "In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ."

Obama also spoke of humility, love and compassion, but his critics were having none of that. Former Florida congressman Allen West called Obama the "Islamapologist in chief." Joe Scarborough of MSNBC called the president out for "stupid, left-wing moral equivalency." Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore judged Obama's remarks "the most offensive I've ever heard a president make in my lifetime."

Denouncing Obama's "historically illiterate" critics, Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates responded by recalling how Christians used the Bible to justify slavery and segregation. Journalist Bill Moyers, remembering a photograph of the charred body of 18-year-old Jesse Washington tied to a cross and burned alive in 1916 in Waco, Texas, observed that ISIL is not the only community of fanatics that has incinerated human beings.

Since 9/11, Americans have engaged in a tortuous national conversation about Islam. Is Islam a religion of peace? Or a religion of war? This discussion is for the good as long as it is civil and informed. But civility nowadays is as rare as a snowstorm on Capitol Hill, and religious illiteracy is rife. Routinely, our disagreements devolve into cultural warfare.

I see two competing narratives at work here.

The conservative narrative is that there is one true religion (which is good) and many false religions (which are bad). This is the view of evangelist Franklin Graham, who responded to Obama's remarks by writing that "Jesus taught peace, love and forgiveness. … Mohammed, on the contrary, was a warrior and killed many innocent people."

The liberal narrative, which Obama apparently shares with popular religion writers Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith, is that all religions are basically good. They all preach compassion but are twisted beyond recognition (in Obama's words) by "those who seek to hijack religions for their own murderous ends." This is what the president was getting at when he said, "There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith."

As a historian of religion, I find neither of these narratives convincing. The first is special pleading on behalf of one theological viewpoint. The second lets the world's religions off too easily, absolving believers of any responsibility to criticize and correct evildoers in their midst.

It could be the case that one or more religions are inspired by God, but religious institutions are undeniably human institutions. This is not a controversial proposition even among Christians, who harbor far less outrage over Obama's remarks than conservative pundits attribute to them. The logic is as simple as it is theologically orthodox: If all humans are sinners, and all Christians are humans, then all Christians are sinners. And so it goes for Muslims, Buddhists and Jews.

Even so, sin was not invented on 9/11 or at the proclamation of the First Crusade in 1095. Christianity and Islam ceased to be perfect the second the first humans joined. When it comes to riling up believers into a murderous rage, no hijackers are required. Any sinner can do the trick.

All religions include "texts of terror" and texts of compassion. The challenge to those of us who call ourselves Christians or Muslims (or atheists) is to mobilize the resources for good inside our communities and to exorcise the resources for evil. That task is impossible if we continue to pretend that the sinners all reside in another camp, or that our religion's history alone is free of hatred and terror.

Stephen Prothero is a Boston University professor and the author of God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World.


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